The jackfruit is slowly making a comeback, featuring on restaurant menus and starring in food festivals, claiming its throne as Miracle Fruit. Shirin Mehrotra explores its many versatile forms in traditional recipes and regional cuisines around the country.
A young man waiting to be married is told that his betrothed is like the ‘tender stalk which holds the large jackfruit, though her love for you is immense.’ – K.T. Achaya
In his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, Achaya writes about jackfruit being poetically mentioned in the Tamil Sangam Literature. To me, the fruit always looked like a child stubbornly hanging on his parent’s leg, asking for candy at the store. Archaeological studies suggest that the cultivation of jackfruit in India dates back to 4000BC and finds its first mention in Chinese traveller Song Yun’s travelogue. Ibn Batuta writes about it too, comparing it to a large melon.
Growing up at a farm in Uttaranchal, summer meant being surrounded by mangoes, lychees and jackfruits. Despite not being the major crop of the region, my grandfather’s farm had over 100 jackfruit trees. Kathal, as we know it in UP, would be made into a dry subzi stir-fried with besan or prepared as koftas in a thick onion and tomato curry to be eaten with rice. My favourite was the jackfruit pickle – big chunks of the fruit tossed with a number of whole spices and soaked in mustard oil. It was quite some work. I would see my nani and my mother toiling in the sun, peeling off the tough skin and cutting through the meaty flesh – a property that gave jackfruit the tag of ‘vegetarian meat’. The Kayastha community of UP and Bihar particularly loves the raw fruit for its meaty texture. The kathal stew is the exact replica of mutton stew where it is slow cooked with whole spices in onion gravy. A similar dish features in Digvijay Singh’s Cooking Delights of The Maharajas — a book that chronicles the recipes from the royal kitchen of Sailana. Owing to its meat like texture, it also became a part of the Lucknowi biryani, or rather, a biryani on its own, now made famous by Chef Manu Chandra who put it on the menu at his gastro-pub Monkey Bar. At Toast and Tonic Chandra serves jackfruit tostadas with goat cheese.
Like the Kayasthas of UP, the Bengali love for jackfruit too stems from its closeness to the texture of meat. It is aptly nicknamed ‘gach patha’ which literally translates to ‘tree lamb’. The echor or raw jackfruit is cooked with onions, garlic and garam masala or can be cooked in a vegetarian way which for Bengalis would mean without onion and garlic. Till early 60s or 70s, the widows in West Bengal had to lead a strict lifestyle devoid of any sort of physical pleasure including non-vegetarian food. Echor was the closest they could get to meat.
Dry subzi, stew, curry, biryani, fritters, tikki, kebab, pickles – just when I thought there couldn’t be more that could be done with jackfruit, I moved to Mumbai. Here I saw the ripe version of the fruit being sold on street-carts and in fruit markets, which I never saw back home. However, my mother tells me that ripe jackfruit is eaten quite often in eastern UP and traditionally parents send a large fruit to their married daughter’s house as a gift every year. In Mumbai I learnt about a new kind of jackfruit that was being added to ice-cream (Naturals), sheera (Ramashray in Matunga) and was being made into thin chips; something I’ve been told the Keralites absolutely love.
In the Konkan belt, phanas (Konkani name for jackfruit) is widely eaten — ripe as well as raw. Last year during my trip to Diveagar — a small coastal town near Mumbai — I came across a Konkanastha Brahmin recipe made using just four ingredients — jackfruit, coconut, jaggery and tamarind. The Konkan Saraswat Brahmins have their summer wedding special of anasa phanaschi bhaji — jackfruit and pineapple cooked together in coconut, tamarind and jaggery paste. The Goan Saraswat Brahmins make a variation of the same dish by adding mangoes to it. In Karwar the dish is made with a specific kind of mangoes called Raiwal. Dried seeds of the fruit are milled and used as cereal. In Tripura, an indigenous whiskey called chuwak uses jackfruit and its leaves in the recipe. And if you get drunk on that, there’s an antidote, as mentioned in Sangam literature, made by blending the overripe seeds of jackfruit, buttermilk, tamarind and the gruel derived from boiling aged rice.
Shubhra Chatterjee, writer and director of the TV show Lost Recipes, tells me about a Coorgi recipe that she came across during her research, “Chakkekuru paji (chakke, meaning jackfruit, and paji, meaning chutney) is a traditional recipe made with boiled jackfruit seeds, onions, coconut and bird’s eye chilli all ground together. It still has some texture to it. It’s normally eaten with rice and ghee.” The KSB’s too make a savoury chutney called sushal with green jackfruit, coconut, red chillies, coriander, curry leaves and jaggery. Dhonas — a cake made from jackfruit pulp and roasted rava (semolina) baked in a stove-top baking pan is another popular dish. The seeds are boiled in salted water and eaten as is, or cooked with dal and coconut flavoured with tephal — the Konkan cousin of the Sichuan pepper.
A few years ago, according to a report published in The Guardian, researchers declared the jackfruit a miracle crop: the Jackfruit tree is easy to grow even in hot climes, gives a good yield, and is highly nutritious. The report has now lead western countries take notice of the fruit and a few start-ups and food trucks are already making ready-to-eat meals with jackfruit. The fruit is rich in vitamins B-complex and C, minerals, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, niacin and sulphur. While the West is taking notice, jackfruit is being consumed less and less in Indian kitchens owing to the effort it takes to peel, cut and cook it.
Back home, Karnataka is the largest cultivator of jackfruit and there are dishes to fill up an entire recipe book. But the state goes through a criminal wastage of the fruit every year despite exporting a large quantity of tender jackfruits to north Indian states. A decade ago the editor of Kannada farm magazine Adike Patrike, Shree Padre took it upon himself to bring this much-ignored fruit back on the front stage. “Jackfruit is looked down upon in Karnataka and Kerala and we’re trying to change the mind set,” says Padre who calls himself a farmer by profession and journalist by obsession. Since 2006 the magazine has done 28 cover stories and 14 special issues on jackfruit. A book has been published consolidating all the features published in Adike Patrike. Through the stories of jackfruit farmers and entrepreneurs who’re working towards making jackfruit a mainstream food source, Padre’s aim is to make it mainstream food source. There are 100-150 jackfruit festivals being hosted in just Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and North-East India. In August, the Kerala government will host its biggest jackfruit festival in Wayanad, where a total of 8 countries will participate. “Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Indonesia are making and exporting jackfruit based products to reduce the wastage. Sri Lanka has 14 companies giving training in this field,” says Padre talking about India still being at a nascent stage. “If the agricultural department takes enough interest, jackfruit has the power to augment local economy and can be key to food security,” he adds. However, efforts are being made and the biggest example is James Joseph, the founder of Jackfruit365 that sells frozen packaged jackfruit and green jackfruit flour. Kanoor based Artocarpus Foods Pvt. Ltd. Has launched ready-to-cook packs including jackfruit pasta, jackfruit seed flour and jackfruit seed coffee easing it back into our kitchens.
In Kerala chips, cakes, idli, puttu, thin steamed dosas are just few of the dishes that use jackfruit. The seeds are cooked in a curry with drumsticks and prawns and even in dal with drumstick leaves. Sweet jackfruit jam is used in payasam and appams. Chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen who hails from Cochin has fondest memories of his grandmother making a stir-fry with the seeds, “She would steam and boil the seeds, peel them, cut them lengthwise and cook them with garlic, jaggery, turmeric, coconut oil and red chillies.” Zacharias whose restaurant is inspired by local produce and regional dishes has introduced jackfruit on his menu in various ways including koftas in Kashmiri yakhni gravy. The fruit has featured on Saransh Goila’s menu too at Goila Butter Chicken where he made a kathal phulka wrap with jackfruit cooked dry with besan, topped with vegetables and hung curd. The Grill Lab in Kochi turns ripe jackfruit into a shake and white chocolate brownie.
From its raw form to ripe, using both flesh to seeds in stir-fries and stews, chutneys and pickles, cakes and halwas, the jack (fruit) is truly a master of all.
Shirin Mehrotra is a freelance food writer and travels to explore regional food. Food history and culture interest her, and she's willing to try everything at least once.
Illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin.
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